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Poverty does not make you happy

Ideas@TheCentre – The CIS newsletter (Sydney), 24 September 2010

‘Money can’t buy me love,’ the Beatles once told us. Now economists like Jeffrey D. Sachs argue that money can’t buy you happiness, either.

In an opinion piece in Wednesday’s The Australian, the Columbia University professor recommended a closer look at the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. The Bhutanese attitude towards development and their government’s focus on happiness should inspire the West, he wrote.

Indeed, Bhutan is always held up by as the shining example in the quest to make the world a happier place. In the 1970s, the Bhutanese king decided that his subjects should strive to increase Gross National Happiness, not GDP. Ever since, this has been the country’s guiding principle. It is this principle that Sachs now recommends to more developed nations.

There is nothing wrong with happiness, of course. In fact, it was the Americans and not the Bhutanese who first declared the pursuit of happiness a national goal. But it’s nevertheless a bit odd to present Bhutan as the role model for global happiness and well-being.

Have the Bhutanese really reached a special stage of enlightenment the rest of the world should follow? There is reason for doubt if you believe reports in the country’s press. Not long ago, the Bhutan Times came to this harsh assessment:

To the world beyond its borders, Bhutan is a sort of a fabled country. Happiness is the mantra of development here that has tickled the imagination of economists and social engineers near and far. Closer home, a microscopic view of things reveals that all is not so well. In the recent years, an overriding numbers of drug and substance abuse and an alarming suicide rate have been reported in the country, an indication that the pursuit of happiness is still a delusional journey for some.

Perhaps the Bhutanese are not so happy after all because they are poor. According to the country’s National Statistics Office, 23.2% of the total population are living below the poverty line of Nu 1,096 (approximately $25) a month.

Or maybe they are unhappy about their press freedom, which was ranked as one of the worst in the world in the 2009 ‘Freedom of the Press’ survey. That is, of course, only relevant insofar as they can read because Bhutanese literacy is below the South and West Asian average.

None of these figures featured in Professor Sachs’ rose-tinted survey of Bhutan.

Such ignorance is a bliss that only Western tourists can afford. Maybe money can’t buy you happiness, but at least it can buy you a return ticket to Bhutan.

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